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The war for the poor

In the run-up to next year’s general election, poverty is back at the heart of political debate. In

Not long ago, I accompanied a group of teenagers from one of the most deprived areas of South Yorkshire on a day out. A local charity had invited the youngsters to go orienteering and rock climbing. It was a lovely, sunny day, and most of the dozen or so kids threw themselves into the activities. But there was one boy, Daniel, who didn't seem to fit in.

Daniel was pale and obese, and arrived clutching an inhaler in one hand. He wasn't sure whether he could cope with outdoor pursuits, because of his weak ankles and a badly bruised foot. He said that he lived with his disabled mother, who had run him over on her mobility scooter during a trip to Tesco.

No one seemed particularly surprised by Daniel's health-related misfortunes. He lived in a once prosperous pit village that had floundered since the mines closed. As joblessness had become endemic in the area, so had ill health. A fifth of its working-age population was on incapacity benefit - four times the proportion that was unemployed. An older generation that had inherited trades and work ethics from its own parents had been left with little to pass on but health defects.

The links between poverty and sickness are well documented. Children from the poorest families are twice as likely to die before the age of 15 as those from the wealthiest, and are two and a half times as likely to have chronic health problems. Less well documented, however, is an alarming trend in the number of young people on disability benefits. The statistics are stark. While the overall number of those on disability benefits has dropped by 2 per cent since 2003, the number of claimants under the age of 25 has risen by two-thirds, from 80,000 to 134,000. A similar pattern has appeared across Europe - in the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland, as well as in eastern Europe and Scandinavia.

Why is this? Surely Labour's attempts to alleviate poverty should have led to corresponding improvements in health? Although the government's pledge to halve child poverty by 2010 will not be met, approximately 600,000 children have been lifted out of poverty. And health statistics tend to show the nation generally, and children in particular, getting healthier. Yet the number of young people claiming sickness benefits continues to rise.

The deprivation map

My initial attempts to make sense of this conundrum led to confusion and even denial. Lurking in the background of every conversation seemed to be the feeling that even to talk about the issue could amount to an admission that claimants were lazy, feckless or dishonest. My approaches to organisations that dealt with young people's rights elicited little response, or simply a refusal to recognise that such a phenomenon even existed. "Government policy is to put pressure on claimants to come off of sickness and disability benefits," wrote one welfare rights worker. Another added: "We are, of course, in the midst of a recession, so the numbers claiming all benefits would be likely to increase."

This last correspondent did seem to have a point. The numbers of young people on Disability Living Allowance (DLA), which is for those with long-term care needs or poor mobility, had been increasing steadily and had doubled since 2003. But the pattern among those on incapacity benefit, for those unable to work, was different. It had dropped for several years, but began to rise rapidly in the autumn of 2008 - just when the recession hit.
So, was the increase in the numbers on sickness benefits in some way related to youth unemployment? Could benefits advisers even have been encouraged to push claimants towards incapacity benefit or its recent replacement, the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), to keep them off the unemployment statistics?

I visited Lancashire. Its welfare rights service was rightly proud of its efforts to ensure that those entitled to benefits got them. One problem, they said, was that both the poorest and the wealthiest were reluctant to claim. In Chorley, a pretty town with only slightly more than its fair share of discount shops and mobility-aid stores, I met Joe Wilson, a welfare rights worker with a quarter of a century's experience under his belt. "That's a depressing thought," he remarked, as he ushered me into a tiny, windowless room.

Wilson, who was about to hold a benefits advice session, thought there were several possible reasons for the rise in young people on sickness benefits. A major factor, he said, was that Jobcentre Plus staff were offloading applicants to other departments by sending clients to get sick notes and apply for ESAs. "If you're working at the Jobcentre and you're overrun, there's an incentive to get them on to the ESA because then their file is off your desk," he explained. Most are judged fit at their medical, but continue to receive the benefit while they wait months for an appeal hearing. Eventually, they go back to claiming Jobseekers' Allowance.

Yet such mechanistic explanations didn't explain why the numbers of young claimants were rising so much faster than the numbers of older claimants. Even though unemployment had risen fastest among the young, the number on these benefits had risen faster still.

Sitting in on Wilson's advice session, I began to sense the complexity of the issue and the deeper social change that was contributing to it. First up was Mary, who had moderate learning difficulties, worked in a supported job in a factory and claimed a low level of DLA. She had been in special schools and in care as a child. She had no family and struggled with daily life.

Then came Colin, who sometimes felt anxious, and occasionally had a bad back. He had been on incapacity benefit, but it had been stopped. He was appealing. "My doctor has no problem giving me sick notes, but the benefits people don't seem to believe me," he explained. "I don't think I was in the medical more than ten minutes."

Neither Mary nor Colin was incapable of work. "Colin would have worked in a warehouse, moving stuff around. Or in construction," said Wilson. "When there used to be a manufacturing sector, there were low-grade labouring jobs for people with mild learning difficulties. You needed someone to sweep the factory floor. Those jobs don't exist any more."

What next?

A picture was beginning to emerge that made sense. Were young people with mild disabilities becoming stuck because the labour market just didn't have a place for them any more? Growing up in areas where traditional industries had died, did they find the route into incapacity benefits clearer than the route into work?

Jim Dickson, head of Lancashire's welfare rights service, agreed that something of the sort was probably happening and that it certainly related to levels of poverty in the area. "If you took the deprivation map of Lancashire and put it alongside a map of DLA claimants, you'd be looking at a mirror image," he told me. "In the old days, the disabilities were work-related. Joiners had arthritis, nurses had bad backs. I don't think that's so strong now."

Instead, there were the conditions of the jobless - depression and anxiety. The proportion of sickness-benefit claimants with mental health problems had been growing, particularly among the young. And there were other modern-day conditions too - ADHD, Asperger syndrome, asthma - all found predominantly among the young and often among the poor.

After my visit to Lancashire, I spoke to Frank Field, the MP for Birkenhead and a former minister for welfare reform. Field, a leading proponent of the view that benefits should help people into work, argued that within Britain's poorer communities, it was not only sickness that was being passed down through the generations. Communities were also passing on their knowledge of the benefits system. "We are healthier as a nation, so there can't be a terrible, plague-like epidemic among those on benefits. There's something else going on," Field said. "There are different groups of young people. Some of them are struggling. Others have no intention of working, but the system accommodates them."

The rising levels of sickness benefit among the young required attention from the government: "These figures are very challenging, and the government has to look at them seriously," Field continued. "It isn't in a young person's interests to be on incapacity benefit - it affects their life chances."

I wondered what would become of Daniel, who was growing up in one of Britain's poorest areas with the odds stacked against him. He had almost every risk factor - he did not have any qualifications, he had been dependent on benefits from an early age and he already had health problems. When I met him, he was about to embark on a course for vulnerable youngsters at his local college. But after that, what next? Would an employer be willing to give him the support and encouragement he so obviously needs? Or would he end up, like his mother before him, with little to look forward to but a life on disability benefits?

Some names have been changed.
Fran Abrams is a journalist and author.

This article first appeared in the 16 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Dead End

James Parrott Collection Christophel Alamy
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The love affairs of Stan Laurel: "If I had to do it over again things would be different"

A romantic who craved stability, the English comedian Stan Laurel led a Hollywood love life as chaotic as his films’ plots

The comedian Stan Laurel was, even by the standards of his time, a prodigious correspondent. The Stan Laurel Correspondence Archive Project contains more than 1,500 artefacts, and these are only the documents that have so far been traced, as many of his early missives appear to have been lost. He was, quite literally, a man of letters.

His punctiliousness about correspondence can be ascribed, at least in part, to his natural good manners, but letters were also a means of filling his long retirement. He outlived his screen partner Oliver Hardy – “Babe” to his friends – by almost eight years but refused all offers of work during that time. Instead, heartbreakingly, he wrote sketches and routines for the duo that would never be performed. It was, perhaps, a way for Laurel to speak with Babe again, if only in his head, until he followed him into the dark on 23 February 1965.

Though Laurel and Hardy have never been forgotten, they are currently undergoing an energetic revival. Stan and Ollie, a film dramatisation of their later years, starring Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel and John C Reilly as Oliver Hardy, is scheduled for release in 2018. Talking Pictures TV is to start showing the duo’s long features from September. Sixty years since Oliver Hardy’s death on 7 August 1957, the duo will soon be rediscovered by a new generation.

They were such different men and such unlikely partners. Laurel was born Arthur Stanley Jefferson in 1890, in Ulverston, then part of Lancashire, the son of AJ, a theatre manager, and Margaret, an actress. He made his stage debut at the age of 16 and never again considered an alternative profession, eventually leaving for the United States to act on the vaudeville circuit before finally ending up in the nascent Hollywood. Norvell Hardy, meanwhile, came from Harlem, Georgia, the son of a slave overseer who died in the year of his son’s birth, 1892, and whose first name, Oliver, Norvell took as his own.

Hardy, who had worked as a singer and as a projectionist, became a jobbing actor, often being cast as the “heavy”because of his bulk. Laurel, by contrast, was groomed for stardom, but it repeatedly slipped through his fingers. Unlike Chaplin’s Tramp, or the boater-and-glasses-wearing Harold Lloyd, he had no persona. Only when Hal Roach paired him with Hardy did he finally find a mask that fitted, and thus a professional marriage slowly grew into a friendship that would endure until Babe’s death.

Laurel was the creative engine of the partnership, creating storylines and gags, intimately involving himself in the directing and editing of each film, but Hardy was the better, subtler actor. Laurel was a creature of the stage, trained to act for the back rows; Hardy, by contrast, had watched countless films from his projectionist’s perch and knew that the smallest of gestures – the raising of an eyebrow, a glance flicked in the audience’s direction – would be writ large on the screen. Laurel recognised this and tailored his scripts to his partner’s strengths.

Thus – and unusually for such partnerships – they never argued with each other about either screen time or money, despite the notorious parsimony of their producer Hal Roach, who paid them what he could get away with and would not let them negotiate their contracts together in order to weaken their bargaining position. Indeed, apart from one contretemps about the degree of dishevelment permitted to Babe’s hair, it seems that Laurel and Hardy never argued very much at all.

And then Babe died, leaving his partner bereft. What was a man to do but remember and write? So Laurel, always a prodigious correspondent, spent much of his retirement communicating with friends and fans by post. It helped that he had a curious and abiding affection for stationery. During one of the many interviews he conducted with John McCabe, his first serious biographer, Laurel revealed a wish to own a stationery store. Even he didn’t seem sure exactly why, but he admitted that he was quite content to while away entire afternoons in examining grades of paper.

Since letters were Laurel’s primary source of contact with the world, much of his writing is quite mundane. He deals with repeated inquiries about the state of his health – “I’m now feeling pretty good,” he informs a Scottish fan called Peter Elrick on 8 June 1960. “I suffered a slight stroke in ’55, fortunately I made a good recovery & am able to get around quite well again, of course I shall never be in a condition to work any more.” He notes the passing of actors he has known (to Jimmy Wiseman on 29 January 1959: “That was a terrible thing about [Carl] ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer wasn’t it? All over a few dollars’ debt he had to lose his life. I knew him very well as a kid in Our Gang films…”), answers queries about his films and his late partner (to Richard Handova on 21 March 1964: “Regarding the tattoo on Mr Hardy’s right arm – yes, that was an actual marking made when he was a kid – he always regretted having this done”) and often writes simply for the pleasure of having written, thus using up some stationery and enabling him to shop for more (“Just a few more stamps – hope you’re feeling well – nothing much to tell you, everything is as usual here,” represents the entirety of a letter to Irene Heffernan on 10 March 1964).

In researching my novel about Stan Laurel, I read a lot of his correspondence. I had to stop after a while, because the archive can overwhelm one with detail. For example, I might have found a way to include Oliver Hardy’s tattoo, which I didn’t know about until I read the letter just now. But of all the Laurel letters that I have read, one in particular stands out. It was written to his second wife, Ruth, on 1 July 1937, as their relationship was disintegrating. It is so striking that I quote it here in its entirety:

Dear Ruth,

When Lois divorced me it unbalanced me mentally & I made up my mind that I couldn’t be happy any more. I met & married you in that frame of mind, & the longer it went on, the stronger it became. That’s why I left you with the insane idea Lois would take me back.

After I left you, I found out definitely that she wouldn’t. I then realised the terrible mistake I had made & was too proud to admit it, so then I tried to find a new interest to forget it all, & truthfully Ruth I never have. I have drank just to keep up my spirits & I know I can’t last doing that, & am straining every effort to get back to normal.

You’ve been swell through it all, except the few rash things you did. I don’t blame you for not being in love with me, but my state of mind overrules my true feeling. If I had to do it over again things would be a lot different, but not in this town or this business. My marital happiness means more than all the millions.

Why has this letter stayed with me? I think it’s because of the penultimate sentence: “If I had to do it over again things would be a lot different, but not in this town or this business.” Hollywood brought Laurel a career, acclaim and a personal and professional relationship by which he came to be defined, but all at a price.

Stan Laurel was a complicated man, and complicated men lead complicated lives. In Laurel’s case, many of these complexities related to women. His comic performances and lack of vanity on screen often disguise his handsomeness, and monochrome film cannot communicate the blueness of his eyes. Women fell for him, and fell hard. He amassed more ex-wives than is wise for any gentleman (three in total, one of whom, Ruth, he married twice), to which number may be added a common-law wife and at least one long-standing mistress.

Had Laurel remained in Britain, serving an apprenticeship to his father before assuming control of one of the family’s theatres, women might not have been such a temptation for him. At the very least, he would have been constrained by a combination of finances and anonymity. Instead, he left for the United States and changed his name. In 1917, he met Mae Dahlberg, an older Australian actress who claimed to be a widow, despite the existence elsewhere of a husband who was very much alive and well. Laurel and Mae worked the vaudeville circuit together and shared a bed, but Mae – who lacked the talent to match her ambition – was eventually paid to disappear, as much to facilitate Laurel’s wedding to a younger, prettier actress named Lois Neilson as to ensure the furtherance of his career.

Yet it wasn’t long into this marriage before Laurel commenced an affair with the French actress Alyce Ardell, one that would persist for two decades, spanning three further nuptials. Ardell was Laurel’s pressure valve: as marriage after marriage fell apart, he would turn to her, although he seemed unwilling, or unable, to connect this adultery with the disintegration of his formal relationships.

The end of his first marriage was not the result of Laurel’s unfaithfulness alone. His second child with Lois, whom they named Stanley, died in May 1930 after just nine days of life. For a relationship that was already in trouble, it may have represented the final, fatal blow. Nevertheless, he always regretted leaving Lois. “I don’t think I could ever love again like I loved Lois,” he writes to Ruth on Christmas Eve in 1936. “I tried to get over it, but I can’t. I’m unhappy even after all you’ve done to try to make me happy, so why chase rainbows?”

But chasing rainbows was Stan Laurel’s default mode. He admitted advertising his intention to marry Ruth in the hope that Lois might take him back. Even after he and Ruth wed for the first time, he wrote letters to Lois seeking reconciliation. It set a pattern for the years to come: dissatisfaction in marriage; a retreat to Alyce Ardell’s bed; divorce; another marriage, including a year-long involvement with a notorious Russian gold-digger named Vera Ivanova Shuvalova, known by her stage name of Illiana (in the course of which Laurel, under the influence of alcohol, dug a hole in his garden with the stated intention of burying her in it), and finally contentment with another Russian, a widow named Ida Kitaeva Raphael, that lasted until his death.

These marital tribulations unfolded in full view of the media, with humiliating details laid bare. In 1946, he was forced to reveal in open court that alimony and child support payments left him with just $200 at the end of every month, and he had only $2,000 left in his bank account. In the course of divorce proceedings involving Illiana, his two previous wives were also briefly in attendance, leading the press to dub Lois, Ruth and Illiana “triple-threat husband hazards”. It might have been more accurate to term Stan Laurel a wife hazard, but despite all his failings, Lois and Ruth, at least, remained hugely fond of him.

“When he has something, he doesn’t want it,” Ruth told a Californian court in 1946, during their second set of divorce proceedings, “but when he hasn’t got it, he wants it. But he’s still a swell fellow.”

Laurel’s weakness was women, but he was not promiscuous. I think it is possible that he was always looking for a structure to his existence and believed that contentment in marriage might provide it, but his comedy was predicated on a conviction that all things tended towards chaos, in art as in life.

Thanks to the perfect complement of Oliver Hardy, Laurel was perhaps the greatest screen comedian of his generation – greater even than Chaplin, I would argue, because there is a purity to Laurel’s work that is lacking in Chaplin’s. Chaplin – to whom Laurel once acted as an understudy and with whom he stayed in contact over the years – wanted to be recognised as a great artist and succeeded, but at the cost of becoming less and less funny, of leaving the comedian behind. Stan Laurel sought only to make his audience laugh, and out of that ambition he created his art.

“he: A Novel” by John Connolly is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 24 August

This article first appeared in the 16 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Dead End